“I have been to this world before,” Gandalf admitted, scanning the landscape. “There should be at least a town nearby, and while they will undoubtedly find you all strange, this entire world is covered in desert. It will not seem inconceivable that you came from some distant corner of it.”
“Thorin’s too sick to be moved,” Óin countered gravely, adjusting his ear trumpet. They had spent the night in the desert and a new day had dawned, but Thorin’s condition had only worsened. “So I know I didn’t just hear you suggest it.”
“And he won’t get better if he stays out here,” Gandalf replied sharply. “Worse, more of the party may sicken. None of you have any experience in this kind of climate.”
Bilbo suspected Dwalin would be next, after his roughhousing with Thorin. And not a one of them had been drinking enough water. Not that Bilbo had experience with deserts, but some Shire summers got extremely hot, and more than one fauntling found themself bedridden after playing too much in that heat. Living inside mountains probably meant that the dwarves knew little of any kind of weather, which was an odd thought. They had been isolated in more ways than one.
“Can we even move him?” Dori wondered. “We can carry him certainly, but slung over someone’s back, or carried between two dwarves will not keep him out of the sun, and we don’t have the materials to make a stable litter.”
Gandalf apparently had no answer to this question, and the party stood stumped for a moment, when there was a great trumpeting sound in the distance that drew their attention. The source was still far off, but Bilbo could see the outline of a great beast, realizing that at their present distance from it, it must be truly massive to even be visible. A memory stirred in the back of his mind.
“An oliphaunt,” Myrtle breathed, giving voice to one of his mother’s tales. It had been one of the stories that even as a child he hadn’t fully believed, but evidently she had not been lying.
The dwarves looked at them strangely, but they too repeated a strange word of their own language, too quietly for Bilbo to catch. As the oliphaunt drew nearer, Bilbo noticed with some excitement that the beast had some kind of platform on its back, and some of it was even shaded. If they could convince the owner to give Thorin at least a ride to the nearest town, that would solve their little problem rather nicely.
“Gandalf, what manner of people live in this world?” Bilbo asked, realizing that so far, they had not encountered the same kinds of people twice. Yet everyone spoke the same language. That seemed curious.
“Men,” was Gandalf’s utterly unhelpful answer.
“What, they have no women?” Glóin squawked in surprise, his ram rearing a little.
Gandalf shook his head, and amused look on his face. “No, no, they have women, I should have said, the Race of Men. Does that make things clearer?” The blank looks on every face of the company told him that it did not. “They belong to the tall folk as you might call them,” he said, addressing Bilbo. “They look like me, and live shorter lives than either of your races, on average. Nothing too strange.”
His mother’s stories had never mentioned the race of Men. Maybe they weren’t exotic enough for her, Bilbo thought with a fond grin. At least not compared to their oliphaunts.
As luck would have it, the Oliphaunt driver noticed their party, and pulled up near them. He hailed them in a foreign tongue that Bilbo had never heard before, but upon seeing their mystified faces, switched haltingly to something more familiar.
“Lost? Needs help?” the man asked. Bilbo noted that his dæmon was some kind of desert bird.
“Our friend has sun-sickness,” Bilbo related anxiously. He missed the way the dwarves exchanged looks behind him, not even realizing the strangeness of being their spokesperson. It felt natural, considering that he probably looked the least threatening of all of them, Gandalf included. “Rather stupid of him really. We need to move him, but can’t do it without making him worse.”
“Sun-sickness, ah,” the man replied with a knowing nod. “Can take to town. And one other.”
Bilbo expected there to be some kind of argument over who would accompany Thorin. His nephews certainly had a claim, but then so did Dwalin, and frankly Óin might be the best company for the sick dwarf. Instead, the dwarves hefted Thorin and Minty onto a platform that was lowered from the Oliphaunt with rope, and then shoved Bilbo onto the platform with him. He didn’t even have time to lodge a proper objection before they were too high in the air for him to look down, let alone shout at the dwarves below. He made a valiant effort to scold them, but they simply waved.
“We’ll meet you in town!” Kili called out, and then the Oliphaunt was moving, leaving the other dwarves behind.
At least Thorin was too ill to notice any of these goings on. He had groaned a little when they were hoisting him onto the oliphaunt’s back, into the shade, but once he was settled, the dwarf king had lain silent. Minty was curled up at his side, just as dead to the world. Satisfied that Thorin wasn’t about to drop dead, Bilbo took the opportunity to look about him. Their hosts were a group of four men, every one of them taller than Thorin. Their attire was not exactly Shire-approved: three of the four men wore no shirt and very little on bottom, their skin heavily tattooed. They seemed to enjoy body modification, Bilbo noted, observing the piercings in their ears and noses, but he reminded himself that they had so easily offered aid to strangers in the desert. They might look fierce, but appearances were not everything. Strange as the situation might be, he wasn’t going to ask questions.
“For once,” he heard Myrtle mutter. He ignored her.
“Where from?” their savior asked conversationally, letting one of his fellows steer the oliphaunt.
The worst possible question to ask, Bilbo reflected bitterly. He would have to lie from the very beginning. “North a ways,” he decided on. “It’s not so hot up there.”
He nodded thoughtfully. “Never been north,” he admitted, then looked sharply at Thorin and Minty. “Said friend?”
It took Bilbo a moment to decipher the question. “Yes,” Bilbo answered easily enough. “Though we only met a few days ago.”
Another nod, and he pointed at Thorin. “Trusts,” he said, which was a bit of a head scratcher without any other words in the sentence.
“He trusts you,” Myrtle translated quietly, and the man looked at her and nodded.
“What makes you say that?” Bilbo asked curiously, feeling his cheeks grow warm. That simply couldn’t be after what Thorin had said the day before.
“Not know word,” the man admitted, pointing at Minty.
“Dæmon,” Bilbo supplied, and the man nodded again.
“Dæmon sleep, not watch. Trusts.”
Bilbo wasn’t sure he believed that, since generally if you were asleep so was your dæmon, but it didn’t do to disagree with people helping you out of the goodness of their hearts. So instead, like a proper Baggins, he changed the subject, though he doubted his dearly departed father would approve of the subject he chose.
“I was told that some Men believe that dæmons are evil, and try to separate man from dæmon,” Bilbo began, watching his savior closely to see if he was exhausting the man’s vocabulary, but he seemed to be following well enough. “Are there such Men in this town?”
The man considered this, swaying slightly with the motion of the oliphaunt. “Might be,” he admitted. “Not many. Those old lies, long ago. Few still believe. Hide belief, not harm dæmon.”
So Gandalf had been right. Bilbo pursed his lips and exchanged a look with Minty. What an unsettling thought. Though he wondered what the man meant, when he said they were old lies. Gandalf had a way of underselling problems, and if this was in any way connected to the wraiths, it had clearly been going on for much longer than the wizard had implied. How like Gandalf. Bilbo wondered anew why Gandalf had dragged him into this. Not that he had any intention of quitting, but when one had big problems that needed solving, one usually did not call upon the little folk of the Shire.
His head was spinning, though that could have been from the heat, and he leaned back against the wall of the giant saddle. As he clutched Myrtle to him faintly, Bilbo realized he had quite neglected his manners.
“Oh! I’m Bilbo, and this is Myrtle,” he exclaimed, extending his hand. The man eyed it strangely, and when he took Bilbo’s hand, it was more a clapping of hands than shaking, but things were clearly different here.
“Abdel,” the man replied with a small smile. “And Leila.” His dæmon squawked a greeting. So Men were more like Hobbits that way. Interesting. Had the Elves introduced their dæmons? Bilbo couldn’t remember. There had been an awful lot of drinking that night. “Your friend?” Abdel asked, and Bilbo realized that Thorin could not very well introduce himself in such a state.
“Thorin and Minty,” he related quickly. “Dwarves don’t like to share the names of their dæmons, so Minty isn’t her real name, just what I call her.”
Abdel looked down at Thorin thoughtfully. “Thorin dwarf? No dwarves here, long time.” Then he gave Bilbo a searching look. “Bilbo not dwarf?”
Bilbo shook his head. “No, I’m a hobbit. I don’t expect you’ll have heard of those.” And Abdel hadn’t apparently, as he simply shook his head, and they lapsed into silence.
In the distance, beyond the Oliphaunt’s head, Bilbo thought he saw the faint outline of a town, though it might have just been the heat haze. He glanced back, to try and catch a glimpse of the dwarves, but there was no sign of them. They had proven to be more than capable joggers back in the goblin tunnels, but there was something to be said for the long legs of an oliphaunt. At least Thorin would soon be safe, and able to recover in peace.
Thorin’s consciousness returned by degrees. He heard soft voices, the whispers of caretakers who were trying not to wake him. He felt Mingalaz’s fur beneath his fingers, and her warm bulk curled up against his side. His eyes felt like they were weighed down by lead, so he left off trying to open them for now. His skin felt like it was burning, which realistically, it probably had done at some point.
But his head, his head felt clear. The pain was nothing compared to the fogginess of the past… few hours? Few days? He didn’t know, and when he tried to open his mouth to ask, he felt cool glass against his lips, and then water dripping into his mouth. It wasn’t enough, but his caretakers probably didn’t know he was awake, and thus were trying not to choke him. That was easy enough to fix.
“More,” he croaked, his voice rough from disuse, and then strong hands were lifting him into a sitting position, the cup tilting back to give him more, and he drank greedily.
“Careful laddie,” a familiar voice warned, but it came too late: he was already coughing.
It was probably time to attempt opening his eyes. They were practically sealed shut by mucus, but they did eventually open, the world slowly swimming back into focus. The light in the room was dim, which was a blessing. Óin was to one side, stirring up some foul-smelling concoction. He saw Daisy lying on the ground, and so assumed that Dwalin was the one behind him who had lifted him. And last but not least, Bilbo was leaning in with the cup, looking at him apprehensively. Mingalaz seemed to have Myrtle in a death grip, though Bilbo did not appear to be in any pain. Well that was embarrassing.
It was not one of their tents, he realized suddenly, taking in the clay walls and the fact that his caretakers weren’t stumbling over each other. He had fallen asleep in the tent, and woken up… where?
“Where are we?” Thorin rasped, taking the cup from Bilbo and draining it. Mingalaz stirred, though she held fast to Myrtle. Thorin scratched her head, and some of the tension eased out of her muscles. Myrtle wriggled free and crawled into Bilbo’s arms with a grateful look.
“Some nameless desert town,” Dwalin grunted.
“It’s not nameless,” Bilbo corrected him. “You just can’t pronounce the name. But this world is apparently called Harad.”
Thorin noted with some amusement that Daisy bristled at the comment, but didn’t lift herself off the floor or growl. Bilbo was growing on Dwalin.
“How did we get here?” Thorin asked. His voice was getting a little stronger, and petting Mingalaz seemed to lessen the burning. “I trust you didn’t just pick a direction and wander in the desert until you found something.”
“No, that’s what you would’ve done,” Dwalin replied cheekily. Thorin wished he felt well enough to smack him, but the quelling look Bilbo gave him was enough.
“Luckily, some traders came across us just as we were debating what to do,” Bilbo explained, playing with Myrtle’s claws absently. “They agreed to carry you, and the rest of the company followed on foot. We’re in an inn, and they’re all floating around somewhere.”
“Is there a portal nearby?” Thorin demanded doggedly, earning some tutting from Óin.
“Sun sickness is a bad business Thorin. We’ll be here a few more days at least, so don’t worry yourself about such things,” the healer scolded, his dæmon adding her agreement with a screech.
“I was asking Master Baggins,” Thorin continued stubbornly, and Óin threw up his hands, giving Bilbo permission to answer.
“Outside of town, Myrtle thinks,” he admitted. “Not too far. “You might try asking the compass where it leads, none of us have gone to look at it yet.”
Thorin, aware that no one had yet mentioned exactly how long he had been out, snatched the opportunity to feel useful. Or at least like less of a burden. The compass was produced, Ori appeared faithfully to jot the symbols down, and the dials were duly turned to ask the question. He had asked this particular question enough to be certain now that he was using the right symbols to ask it, though he wasn’t sure how he could be so certain. When the needle moved, he saw a person, and water, but the others seemed unrelated, or at least he couldn’t understand how it related. He couldn’t say how he knew that the person and the water were the significant, more literal symbols. In the end, he decided they would have to run them by Gandalf. Maybe the wizard would have an easier time, or they would become clear when they entered the portal. He grimaced. That did always seem to be the case. Would he ever learn to read it properly?
His caretakers stepped out at some point, leaving Thorin to his private musings. Mingalaz had also roused herself, which was a relief. It was unusual for her to be so drowsy.
“Were you awake much while I was out?” Thorin asked her, rubbing her ears absently.
“Wasn’t much point,” she muttered, shifting so that she was lying on his lap. A mountain lion was not exactly the right size to be a lap cat, but Mingalaz had never learned that lesson. “We were safe, and I felt terrible.”
Thorin’s eyebrows shot up. “We were safe? It sounded like they handed us over to strangers and hoped we would be okay when they caught up.” Not that he was too upset about it. They had been right.
“It wasn’t exactly like that,” Mingalaz admitted, studiously looking in another direction. “Bilbo was a little disingenuous.”
Mingalaz shifted uncomfortably. “Bilbo and Myrtle were with us the whole time,” she said as quickly as possible.
It was so very rare for Thorin to have the upper hand dealing with Mingalaz, and here was a prime opportunity. He tried not to let the sense of triumph show on his face, but wasn’t sure he completely succeeded. “Bilbo and Myrtle? Why would the company put us in their care, when most of them are blood? And why would you fall asleep with us in their care? They can find portals well enough, but Master Baggins has only just begun learning to fight. He could not protect us.”
“I knew we would be fine,” Mingalaz replied, not looking away from the spot on the wall that she was practically boring a hole into with her gaze.
“So you trust them,” Thorin observed, tweaking her ear lightly, and Mingalaz snapped up.
“Yes, fine, okay, I trust them,” she grumbled. “As I recall, it was you who wanted to send them home, not me.”
“And it was you who thought they would be no use at all,” he reminded her. “And now you’re falling asleep in front of them? You’re losing your edge, Minty.”
“Don’t you dare call me that,” Mingalaz growled, though without any real bite. “In all seriousness Thorin, I think they’re trying to matchmake you.”
“Like you weren’t on the very first day,” Thorin pointed out with a raised eyebrow.
“I was making a suggestion, which I have not repeated, out of respect for our centuries together,” Mingalaz replied, matching his tone. “But I think our companions are getting ideas. Ideas which I cannot claim responsibility for.”
“Then where are they coming from? I have not been… very generous with him,” Thorin admitted with a grimace.
“Let’s stop beating around the bush. Frerin would have been all over him, and most of them know that.” Mingalaz said flatly. “He would have seen that his dæmon suggested a grumpy demeanor, and teased him relentlessly, delighting in the spots of pink that would appear on his cheeks when he finally got angry and scolded him on tiptoes.”
She painted such a clear picture. It was impossible not to see it. “And Frerin is gone,” he murmured.
“Exactly. It’s normal to mourn Frerin and Shathinh, and perhaps given how recently they died you should take a little more time to go it, but you don’t have to distance yourself from Bilbo just because they would have liked him. You’re not exactly succeeding anyway, just making yourself look bad,” Mingalaz assured him. “They see that, and they assume.”
“They assume because I am making a fool of myself that my feelings are more than they are,” Thorin realized, his mouth a thin line. That was all he could allow himself to believe right now. “Frerin and Shathinh would be laughing at me if they were here right now.”
“‘Is this how the future king conducts himself with strangers?’” Mingalaz asked, dropping her voice in a poor imitation of Frerin. “‘I shudder to see how you will handle trade discussions with our allies.’”
They both laughed at the memory. At a ball with one of the neighboring kingdoms, Thorin had not only snubbed the daughter of the lord, but he had done so completely unintentionally. And then Mingalaz had stepped on her dæmon, and the poor girl had fled in tears. Dís and Abkund had laughed hysterically, but Frerin had actually been disappointed. Serious moments had been rare with his younger brother.
“So, be less of a fool with Master Baggins?” Thorin surmised wryly.
“You’re sick, so I’m sure he’s in a forgiving mood. Make the most of it,” Mingalaz suggested languidly.
“It almost sounds like you’re matchmaking again,” he observed.
“Wouldn’t dream of it.”